A short block of Robson Street that is routinely closed to traffic for the summer and turned into a popular pedestrian plaza could be shut down permanently beginning this year.
City manager Sadhu Johnston said staff is preparing a report to go to council in either late April or early May that will recommend the 800-block of Robson Street, between Howe and Hornby streets, be closed year-round.
“It’s something we’ve been directed by council for a while to work on,” Johnston told the Courier. “We want to do it because we think it’s the right thing to do. There’s not that many public gathering places downtown — plazas like that. So we want to create a really nice public spot that people can gather.”
Although the stretch of the two-way street is short, Johnston said closing it to vehicle traffic would connect the public spaces at the law courts with the south side of Vancouver Art Gallery, a popular hangout for people, a public protest spot and home to a few food trucks and retail kiosks.
“So when you close that [block], you actually do create a nice-sized plaza area,” said Johnston, noting the city will work with business associations to decide how the street would be transformed, if council gives staff the green light to proceed.
The plan to permanently shut down the block to vehicles has been in the works since 2010 when the stretch was closed for the Winter Olympics. Since then, the block has been closed to traffic every year, between June and August. Funky and whimsical furniture for seating and dining was added to the street during those months.
Charles Gauthier, executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, said in an email to the Courier that he won’t comment on the plan to close the street until he reads the city’s report. In April 2015, Gauthier told Business in Vancouver that downtown businesses could no longer support the summer closures of the street because it was too disruptive for customers and deliveries.
The 800-block of Robson Street is on the No. 5 Robson/Downtown bus route and TransLink has had to reroute buses every summer to accommodate the closure of the stretch. Previous city reports described the transit route as important because it connects the downtown and West End. Seniors wanting to get to the main library, shopping, theatres and transit hubs rely heavily on the bus, the report said.
Anthony Kupferschmidt, executive director of the West End Seniors’ Network, said his organization sent a letter in September 2012 to Mayor Gregor Robertson and city council that outlined seniors’ concerns about the summer closures.
“The bus re-route around the Robson Street closure is confusing and circuitous,” the letter said. “While some many suggest that transit users simply walk to Granville Street from Burrard and Robson, this can be very difficult for seniors and others with mobility issues, particularly as we head into the wet, cold fall and winter months.”
The letter ends: “We also know that it can be very difficult for younger, able-bodied people to appreciate just how challenging disruptions to services as key as public transit can be for many seniors. We ask that, in this case, you reconsider any thought of further closures of major transit routes like Robson Street.”
Kupferschmidt said the letter is relevant today, particularly upon hearing the news the city wants to close the stretch year-round. He said he’s heard the No. 5 bus could be rerouted to run off Robson onto Burrard — and the other side of the block — to Seymour Street.
“Even shifting the No. 5 bus route a couple of blocks means that older adults who rely on transit to get around can’t easily access much of the downtown core,” he said. “Even walking that couple of blocks can be very challenging for seniors who are mobility impaired. We’ve heard from a lot of members who are concerned what that means for accessing services downtown.”
Chris Bryan, a TransLink media relations advisor, said if city council follows through on city staff’s recommendation and permanently closes the stretch of Robson, then the No. 5 bus will be diverted along Burrard and West Pender streets.
“Our partners at the City of Vancouver can better speak to the closures,” Bryan said in an email to the Courier. “ I can tell you the bus route concepts being explored during the recent Downtown Bus Service Review take into consideration possible changes being considered by the City of Vancouver that could affect how and where customers travel.”
The bus service review report, which was released in August 2015, suggests using Burrard, Seymour and Richards streets to accommodate rerouting of the No.5 bus from the 800-block Robson Street.
“Once the City of Vancouver confirms the expected future programming of Robson Square closures for the next five years as well as longer term, a final agreement will be confirmed for the [No.] 5 Robson/Downtown,” the report said.
In the 1970s, when the late architect Arthur Erickson led the design of three city blocks that run from Nelson Street to Georgia Street, between Howe and Hornby, the 800-block of Robson was intended to be for pedestrians, not vehicles. But the block was open to bus traffic immediately after construction. Then in the 1980s, regular vehicle traffic was allowed on the stretch as part of the downtown street network.
A city staff report from November 2012 said closing an east-west block on an arterial street could cause congestion and “service level impacts to the system” and businesses. Impacts to walking, cycling, transit, the goods movement and driving had not been fully explored at that time. The pending report going before council is expected to address those concerns.